It’s easy to succumb to instinctive reactions when teens seem irritable, rejecting, and unproductive — especially when we think we understand what’s going on and what they should be doing. Without knowing how to decode teens behavior, and/ or when emotional factors interfere with perspective, parents are vulnerable to misinterpreting difficult situations based on their own feelings and the literal, often misleading message they perceive from teens. Being in the dark and reacting automatically puts parents at a significant disadvantage, especially in emotionally charged situations.
Claudia, 17, came home from a sleepover angry and crying. “Why do I have to be on all these meds? Everyone thinks it’s weird that you make me take them.” (Later it was revealed that Claudia’s medicine bottles fell out of her backpack in front of everyone.)
Mom (Jill): “Hey- I wasn’t the one who prescribed the medicine. And if you don’t want to be on them, that’s your choice. But don’t think we’re paying for you to take classes next year and have you fail… Is that your sister’s shirt you’re wearing? Why do you always have to take other people’s things?”
Claudia stomped up to her room yelling, “Why are you always up in my face? I can’t stand you.”
Mom: “You’re so mean and hurtful.”
That evening, Claudia came to her mom scared her mom would die – and sobbing over how guilty she’d feel for being such a bad daughter.
What happened here?
High Speed, High Amplitude Parenting: taking things personally and losing sight of teens’ vulnerability
Claudia’s mom got caught in a common pattern of high speed, high amplitude parenting- an emotionally triggered dynamic ignited by taking teens’ behavior personally and stoked by repeated lack of success in positively impacting teens.
Jill was exhausted and frustrated by her daughter’s executive function and mood regulation difficulties. Here, she was triggered by Claudia’s volatility and took things personally — honing in on feeling blamed and blind sighted. She became fixated on her daughter’s implicit threat, which she took literally, and envisioned impending disaster scenarios. In response, the mom upped the ante – paradoxically creating the control battle she feared regarding Claudia going off her meds – though this hadn’t been the issue. Instead of turning down the volume, the mom escalated the interaction and became a part of the problem, leaving Claudia with no one to help her.
The real story: psychologically speaking
Claudia was preoccupied with feeling she wasn’t “normal” because of her executive function and mood issues, living in fear of being outed with her friends. When her worst fear was realized at the sleepover, she felt exposed and desperately humiliated. In an instinctive attempt ward off shame, she blamed her mom (not the worst teen face saving strategy with peers) and got angry.
Conspicuously, though, behind the veil of anger Claudia trusted her mom enough to engage her when she got home — seeking help, rather than isolating herself. Misinterpreting what was happening as her daughter being selfish, rebellious and “refusing” to take responsibility — the mom missed the real issue and got pulled into a battle that made Claudia feel worse.
When parents are triggered and take teens’ behavior personally, they unknowingly become embedded in an internally focused mindset which obscures their perception and judgment. In the process, teens’ vulnerability, limitations and need for support become invisible — significantly hindering parents’ ability to read teens’ communications and respond effectively.
Emotional flashbacks triggering parent’s reactions
Strong feelings from the past can transport us out of the present moment through emotional “flashbacks.” Earlier versions of our mental software become superimposed on present situations without our awareness — overwriting perception and amplifying reactions.
In this example, the mom failed to recognize her own sensitivities- from having grown up with a controlling and narcissistic dad. Experiencing Claudia as threatening like her own dad, she became oblivious to her daughter’s real vulnerability as well as her own greater power and capacity to manage the situation.
How parents can help teens — A positive example:
Parents can anchor themselves from getting pulled under along with teens by learning to read the subtext of teens’ behavior and being vigilant of their own emotional triggers in order to step back from taking things personally.
Claudia’s mom sought help after this episode, and recognized how her emotional reactions confounded her perceptions and judgment with Claudia. Ironically, when parents become overwhelmed their own executive functions go off line too — and these are the very capacities which provide the scaffolding teens need to borrow. When the issue came up again, Jill kept her composure and realized that her daughter was trying to tell her something. Bracing herself, she listened and saw past the anger. She reminded herself she didn’t need to defend against Claudia’s threats or do anything. Instead, she shifted her attention to how much Claudia was struggling, and worked on tolerating what her daughter was experiencing and just being present.
Breaking silence about secrets with people who are safe and accept you is the antidote to shame. This is part of what helped Claudia when she was able to talk with her mom about her feelings (and discovered that her friends still liked her). Following the reparative interaction with her mom, the episode blew over and Claudia’s mood seemed to lift.
Misdiagnosing teens: Summary
Misdiagnosing what is going on with teens is one of the most common hidden causes of failed parenting efforts — leading to cumulative frustration and demoralization on the part of both parents and teens. This can be particularly problematic when strong feelings and blind spots lead to false confidence in the accuracy of perceptions about teens, perpetuating a cycle of missed or broken connections.
In some cases though — even when composed — parents may not understand teen’s motivations and day to day experience. When this occurs, the difficulty “seeing” teens may be caused by various factors including: being distracted and/or stressed, a lack of true curiosity, as well as not knowing how to interpret teens’ behavior and emotions. Such situations, though quieter and more insidious, are hurtful because they create a disconnect between parent and teens, again leaving teens without support. Parents can improve their understanding of teens in the following ways: focusing more on noticing rather than shaping them; getting input from others who know their teen; observing and listening; having presence of mind; noticing when teens do things well; and backing off from “lessons” and emphasis on performance.
Tips for parents on managing teen meltdowns
- Anticipate and plan for difficult interactions. Think about what you want to achieve when deciding what to say.
- Let teens express their feelings without interrupting or judging. Wait until things cool off before having a real conversation.
- Practice learning to pause, stop and think before reacting. Remember that your own equilibrium helps regulate teens.
- Set an example: own up to your own mistakes and negative behavior.
- Capture and create opportunities to connect (non intrusively) around neutral activities/topics in which teens are naturally motivated, interested, and confident eg, tv shows, sports, mobile phone apps.
- Don’t say or do things that make the stakes higher or turn up the intensity
- Don’t use fear or forecasting failure, as a motivator – it will immobilize teens, and/or lead to relief seeking, control struggles
- Don’t give unsolicited advice without asking first if they want it.
- Don’t take away things that are healthy or have a positive effect on teens.
- Don’t add to teens’ shame by criticizing and putting them down. Doing so can also increase anger and blaming as protection against feeling bad about themselves.
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas that occur in families.